The Girl Without Feminism
In China the winter lull comes later and longer, and I’m biding my two weeks of winter break (which will be followed by a week of teaching and then two more weeks off for the Spring Festival–these frequent vacations get lost in the collective hysteria over Chinese educational hegemony) watching the Swedish movies of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl trilogy.
I have neither read the books nor seen the first U.S. movie (which opened on December 21) but they have been such a phenomenon that I couldn’t help but know something going in. I knew, for example, that a literal rendition of the Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Men Who Hate Women. I knew also that the male protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, is based on Larsson down to his journalism career, proclivity for cigarettes and booze, and overt feminism. And I knew that the female protagonist is a computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander and supposed to be six kinds of badass cool.
In the Swedish movies, Salander is played by Noomi Rapace, and both the performance and the character are as advertised, compelling in the extreme. In the U.S. version, Salander is played by Rooney Mara, and here she is in a recent Newsweek interview, responding to the suggestion that Dragon Tattoo is a feminist book:
I think maybe the feminists see it that way. I don’t know what Larsson’s intentions were. But I don’t think Salander does anything in the name of any group or cause or belief. She is certainly not a feminist.
This response put me in mind of a recent conversation with a young (23) Chinese woman, who has become a good friend. We work together, and on our first tentative social outing we made our way to a Western-style bar (“Western-style” is redundant–drinking culture here is vastly different and the Chinese people I’ve met don’t have our concept of “going to the bar” or “meeting for drinks”) where I have become familiar.
As two and then three cocktails settled into her (itself an achievement–more than one Chinese woman has told me that she has never drunk alcohol because doing so would keep her from getting married, to which your guess is as good as mine) she grew chatty, and began telling me about her ex-boyfriend, with whom she had been in love. It ended badly, she said, because in the end he was just another typical Chinese man. He wanted to control her and arrange her life to support him. He didn’t really care about her, she was just another accessory. When his family arranged an excellent job for her, that was the last straw. It would have been a de facto engagement and the final surrender of her freedom.
All this came out of her in a rush, the course of which impressed me: for its keen insight into sexual politics; for the strength it took to stand up for herself; and maybe most of all for the eloquence of her screed in a second language. It was by far the most intimate exchange I’ve had with a Chinese person, and it made me like her immensely.
“I didn’t realize you were such a feminist,” I told her.
I intended this as both a sympathetic recognition and a compliment–I am a feminist–but that’s not how she took it. Instead she grew angry, and denied the title with all the vehemence she could muster. She didn’t hate men, she explained, she liked them very much, and so she could never be a feminist. We moved on then to other topics. It is hardly the first time I’ve had a conversation with a woman who is clearly a feminist but refuses identification.
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH
And this is also what Mara is doing. If the book has even a tangential relationship to the movie there is zero doubt that its author is a feminist. Salander is not only more interesting than Blomkvist, she’s far more intelligent and resourceful. She’s the one who solves the mysteries that propel the plot, and she’s the one who rescues Blomkvist from the villain seconds before his death. She dictates the terms of their sexual relationship. And she (in)famously exacts a vicious revenge on her rapist that had me cheering. Blomkvist, meanwhile, asks her to drive when they rent a car and is relegated to favoring her with soft loving looks meant to convey how much he simultaneously loves and fails to understand her, as though he were Maggie Gyllenhall (“Mad at Me” is what I have in mind). And the central theme of the narrative is the omnipresent destructive potential of specifically male evil. No intelligent observer could say in good faith that Larsson and his stories are not feminist in intent.
And yet it cannot surprise that Mara denies it, as my Chinese friend denied her own feminism. To those on the inside this is baffling; as the saying goes, feminism is the radical notion that women are people, and it feels as natural to us as gravity or opposing animal torture. It then becomes so hard to argue with that it is difficult to argue for, especially when resistance to the term–not just the idea but the term–is so entrenched.
Opposition to the cause has, per usual, focused and re-focused attention on language–“feminazi”– to, per usual, devastating success. They have done it so well that it’s no longer safe for feminists to see, let alone proclaim, themselves as such, even in safe places like the private corner of a bar and for safe people like movie stars. The ground of the fight has shifted over thirty years and we no longer battle in the ring. Before we can do so we must first convince the crowd that the ring exists, and is a good place to hold a fight. And so the long road gets longer and longer.